Just over 10 years ago the Australian military-led intervention ended years of devastating civil conflict in the Solomon Islands.
Two years later, hundreds rioted after a controversial election result, destroying Chinatown - a quarter of the commercial area of the capital Honiara. From my first week working there as part of a flood response team, I was certain that the unprecedented, devastating impact of this natural disaster would somewhere, somehow, set off another riot.
The Solomon Islands is one of the poorest countries on the planet. When flash floods hit Honiara on the main island of Guadalcanal it was clear we were facing an unprecedented crisis. Twenty-three people were dead, more than 10,000 had been forced from their homes, a further 50,000 were severely affected; there was immeasurable damage to the country’s economy and infrastructure.
I was working as a VSA volunteer at Honiara City Council, improving council transparency and public engagement, but three days after the floods swept through I was appointed to a new job at the Council’s Emergency Operations Centre.
My work wasn’t the kind you’d expect, like a benevolent white man handing out bags of rice. Instead I was behind the scenes doing something you never see on TV: coordinating the council’s information management.
Many of my friends congratulated me on what “good work” I was doing. But on my first day on the job, I had no idea what that “good work” actually was. I had no background in disaster information management (which, I soon discovered, is a sought-after skillset globally). I didn’t know who the key players in the crisis were; who was talking to who; what decisions were being made, how to organise a response, or what was already underway.
The reality was that around me, government ministries, agencies and NGOs were linking together to create an emergency response bureaucracy that hadn’t existed three days earlier.
The pressure of the situation meant it was far from the dream scenario taught in undergraduate development studies – a blissful humanitarian aid worker wonderland, where everyone’s role is clear, there’s plenty of direction, and limitless generosity and resources.
Instead it was chaos – a world of poor communication and confused decision-making, with awkward and unresolved overlapping of responsibilities, and internal tensions between institutions and foreign NGOs.
As I collected data on progress made, wrote reports, attended meetings, consulted with external bodies, and sympathised with homeless flood victims who pleaded with me for help – an assumed representative of aid distribution – it became clear that 1) I was completely out of my depth and 2) the instability simmering in Honiara was close to boiling point.
People were already angry. Some council workers were stoned by evacuees they were distributing relief goods to.
That’s not to say it didn’t work. Huge progress was made and the system gradually improved. But when a disaster response doesn’t go to plan there are humanitarian consequences. I did my best to find solutions in the thick of it, but the whole time I was fairly confident there could be a riot if the whole thing didn’t flow smoothly.
A draft press release I gave to the City Clerk had a line about the opportunism of people registering as “evacuees” in order to get free food. He gently rejected it with a smile, stating that it might make some people “angry”.
People were already angry. Some council workers were stoned by evacuees they were distributing relief goods to. And then, over dinner at an Indian restaurant one Friday, I heard the first rumours of rioting.
That same night a mob of 200 people clashed with police throughout East Honiara and burned down a Chinese-owned business. The next day there was a protest in the CBD. Two days later I was sent home after being told of a potential riot outside my office. That afternoon police covered the city and two helicopters circled Chinatown for fear of a repeat of the racist and violent attacks of 2006.
It’s generally stated that the rioters, which included evacuees, were angry with the national government’s response to the disaster. But in the process of acting on that targeted, collective rage, other longstanding issues of inequality and corruption came to the fore. The anger directed at the government swelled to motivate a racist attack on a business owned by a Chinese man who’d been among the very first donors to the flood relief efforts.
But just as quickly as it had erupted, the situation calmed. Since that brief burst of anger, there’s been scarcely another incident, apart from flood victims threatening to burn down government offices after it announced its intention to close evacuation centres due to a lack of funding.
No one in Solomon Islands wants a repeat of the violent period known colloquially as “the tensions” that almost bankrupted the economy. But following decades of unequal and failing development, there is still a simmering anger.
With the challenges presented by the national election this year – vote buying, hollow promises and disillusioned voters – many fear that problems with the ongoing flood recovery will not be addressed and there may be more riots to come.
The disaster response still isn’t finished and many matters are still unresolved. But perhaps that’s part of running an emergency response, especially in a city that’s still recovering from devastating civil conflict. There’s always room for misinterpretation and if you see the situation as black and white, and don’t watch what you say, you might incite a riot.
*You can find information about overseas volunteer work at www.vsa.org.nz.
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